Happy New Year! If you’re anything like me, you don’t really buy into the new year resolution racket. But maybe, like me, some part of your brain still kinda sorta knows that it’d be a good idea to lose a little weight, for whatever reason. For me, it’s a combination of wanting to carry less weight around during obstacle races and, if I’m honest, just a little bit of vanity. I spent a big part of last year learning a lot about nutrition and exercise. In this edition, I’ll try to distill some of that information down for you.
The thing about weight management with humans is that somewhere along the line we have lost sight of the fact that it’s pretty simple. We stopped seeing the forest for the trees. We let ourselves get marketed into beliving that losing weight is a complex process, and that all these diet plans are somehow making it simpler, when actually the reverse is true. Losing weight is pretty simple. Depending on your goals and lifestyle, it might not be easy. But it’s definitely simple. Don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise. There are several legit “good guy” authorities on nutrition out there. If you’re interested in knowing more than what I’ve written here, the bottom of this letter has a list for further reading1.
The secret to losing weight can be summed up as: eat less than necessary, and be patient. That’s really it. As with most simple things, there’s a lot of meaning packed in there. Let’s unpack a bit of it. First, when I say “eat” I really mean eat real food. Eating doesn’t mean drinking protein shakes, though they have their place; it doesn’t mean eating nutrition bars or prepackaged meals or whatever. As Michael Pollan notes2, when you go to the supermarket, shop around the perimeter rather than in the inner aisles. The edges of the store are where you’ll find the real food: veggies, meat, fish, dairy. The next part, “less than necessary” just means that you consume fewer calories than you require to maintain your current weight. The “be patient” part means that this takes time. The more weight you have to lose, the more time it will take. Healthy weight loss occurs at about 1lb to 1.5lb per week, with some exceptions for start-up water weight loss. Pretty simple, eh?
There are a couple of corollaries to the above “secret” which can be helpful for active people to remember. The first is eat less, move more. The second is you can’t outwork a lousy diet. If you aren’t an athlete, or an active person, then don’t worry about these two corollaries. Sure, it’s good to move more, and you should. But if you live a generally sedentary lifestyle, with no plan to increase activity, then your weight loss is going to be all about food, and movement isn’t really going to play a part, so that first “secret” is all you need to know. Skip down to the bottom for a reading list, and I wish you luck. Everyone else, listen up.
If you think you can just add in a three mile run every couple of days and watch the pounds slip away without adjusting what you eat, you are mistaken. The “move more” bit just means that when you eat less than necessary, you can increase weight loss by increasing your activity. Activity alone isn’t going to do it, unless you’re already eating less than necessary.
Moving Too Much More
Moving more doesn’t have to be hard. Just walking more will help. This stuff is all interrelated though, so be aware that if you move a LOT more, like run for miles and miles, your body will adapt to the “new normal” and respond by decreasing metabolic rate. The very thing you think should burn up more calories/fat actually contributes to slowing down your body’s ability to do so, making it more difficult to drop pounds. This applies to any cardio-based activity, not just running.
If you are serious about losing some weight, you need to either count calories or macronutrients3. I know you didn’t want to hear that (I sure don’t), but it’s true. At least for a while, until you’ve got your schick down pat. If you are active, you probably should count macros. If you’re sedentary, either is fine. Here is a good generic calculator for starting to figure out your macros (and recipes). Sedentary folks can use this calculator. Active people should prioritize protein intake. If you’re vegetarian/vegan, you probably know where your protein comes from. Everyone else, get your protein from low fat meat: chicken, really lean beef, and seafood. It turns out that your body has a tremendous capacity for processing protein, so eat up.
Active people need to pay attention to the macronutrient makeup of their food. There are lots of ways to approach this, so feel free to do your own reading to see what works for you. The basic advice for active folks is to eat sufficient protein every day, and cycle your carbs and fat. That means assume you’re eating the same amount of protein each day, but on workout days you eat more carbs and a little less fat. On rest days you eat fewer carbs and a little more fat. You need those carbs on workout days so your body gets enough fuel. You want to lose weight, but you don’t want to sacrifice muscle. Eating insufficient carbs on workout days puts active/lean people at risk of catabolism, which is where your body starts using muscle as fuel rather than fat or readily available carbs. There’s plenty more detail behind all this, but thems the basics.
Tools For Success
Use online calcutors to help you figure out your macros and build receipes to fit them. Learn about, and consider using, intermittent fasting to give yourself some contraints. Reject the idea of “cheat days”; embrace planned breaks (aka refeeds) in your diet. Relax, and don’t get all OCD about food. The most efficient activity for weight loss is to build muscle (which increases metabolism), so consider learning how to lift heavy things.
That Is All
I’ve gone on too long already, but in summary, pay attention to your food, and don’t stress out about the occasional slip-up. Accept and move on. If you need more details on any of this, read the authors listed below. In particular, learn about the causes of metabolic slowdown and the solutions for fixing or avoiding it. Also, if you find misstatements or mistakes in the above, please let me know! I’m an absolute layman when it comes to this, and I’m learning as I go. Writing this for you helps me understand it better.
Good Luck With The Diet
Thanks for reading,
For deep info and how-to information, read Lyle McDonald. For good reviews of current nutrition science, read Alan Aragon. For a combo nutrition/fitness perspective, read Martin Berkhan. If you want a little coaching on nutrition while staying active, look into Andy Morgan. ↩
The main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Some folks also include alcohol. When counting macros, it’s a good idea to include a little buffer and stay flexible. Andy Morgan has a great outline of how to do this. ↩